RICHMOND, Va. - Among the swords, the wrenching letters home and the haunting photographs in the Museum of the Confederacy's new exhibit on Gettysburg, few artifacts embody the ferocious battle more than the eight battle flags recovered from the bloodied fields where Pickett's Charge was fought.
The men who carried them were first in the line of fire, and the flag was coveted by the enemy. If the color bearer fell, it was expected another soldier would pick it up. For the 7th Virginia Infantry alone, nine men were lost at Gettysburg holding the St. Andrew's Cross.
"Capturing the flag was a pretty big deal, or losing your flag was a bigger deal," said Robert Hancock, senior curator at the Richmond museum. "Color bearers made a nice target because they were bearing the big red flag. You did not want to let that flag go."
The flags, among more than 500 in the museum's extensive collection, are the centerpiece of "Gettysburg: They walked through blood," which opened Saturday and runs through September to mark the 150th year since the Battle of Gettysburg.
The exhibit focuses on Gen. George Pickett's Virginia Division and the doomed charge on Union Maj. Gen. George G. Meade's union positions on Cemetery Ridge on July 3, 1863.
While the battle forever will be known as Pickett's Charge, it was ordered by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and Pickett was one of three generals who led the assault under Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, the charge's commander.
All eight battle flags are from Pickett's Division and the swords of his three brigade commanders - Gens. Lewis Armistead, James Kemper and Richard Garnett - are part of the exhibit.
The battle involved more than 12,000 Confederate soldiers who attempted to advance over fields for three quarters of a mile amid unrelenting fire from Union forces. More than half of the South's soldiers were killed or injured in a battle that forever bruised the psyche of the South.
The exhibit will offer Civil War buffs plenty to see, including a large map detailing the battle, but Hancock said the show is also intended to humanize this chapter of history.
"We try to get the audience to connect a little bit more with the individuals and what happened to them later on," he said. "That's one reason we put the photographs in, so you can see a face, attach a face to an object."